Growing Environmental Concerns: Microplastics



What Are Microplastics?


Microplastics are incredibly tiny (less than 5mm) pieces of synthetic plastics resulting from commercial goods and the breakdown of large plastic products. Like most plastics, these microplastics are not biodegradable; and are categorised into primary and secondary plastics.


Primary microplastics are tiny particles utilised for commercial use within makeup, skincare, textiles, and fashion. Secondary microplastics result from the dangerous breakdown of large plastic items that can break down from the sun’s radiation and the ocean (e.g. plastic straws, bags, and bottles).


Why Do Plastics Affect Climate Change?


By not being readily decomposable - microplastics are causing severe pollution and harm to oceans, ecosystems, animals, and humans. Yes, humans!


Since plastics are very lightweight and low in density, minuscule bits of plastic can circulate through the atmosphere and, as a result, affect the Earth’s temperature and cause climate change. Additionally, toxic substances can be released into water and soil as larger plastics start decomposing under weather conditions – these toxins contribute to air pollution.


The Effects of Microplastics on Living Organisms?


Microplastics not only have harmful effects on the environment but also on the human body. With single-use plastics, Polyvidone (PVP) and Bisphenol A (BPA) products being commonplace within society, scientists have recently discovered they have made their way into the human bloodstream. They identified that almost 80% of the humans tested were consuming microplastics!


These microplastics can be found within our oceans – and can end up within marine organisms, animals, and commercial seafood. Alarmingly, the microplastics found within oceans can bind and react with additional harmful chemicals, leading to organisms ingesting them. Drinking water is also affected, and it is worrying that standard water treatment facilities cannot totally remove traces of microplastics.


Through plastics in water and packaging, plants and vegetation can also become polluted before consumption. These are some of the ways how humans can easily ingest plastics that can be traced after a lifetime in their bodies. Unfortunately, scientists are unsure of the exact health effects that consumption can cause on humans.


Microplastics in Cosmetics?



2018 saw a ban on plastic microbeads within exfoliating cosmetic products (e.g., face and body scrubs) in the UK. Before this ban, an estimated 680 tonnes of microbeads were used in UK cosmetics each year. However, microbeads are not the only daily use cosmetic product containing microplastics. Lipsticks, sun-creams, hairspray, mascara, and eyeshadows all contain tiny plastic particles.


In a top-five ranking of the presence of microplastics (within cosmetics), mascara has been exposed for the highest scoring, containing 90% microplastics. Followed by lipsticks/lip glosses (85%), foundation (74%), highlighters (69%) and face powders (43%). Cosmetics overall cause 35,000 tonnes of plastic waste in the ocean.


Other Everyday Products You Might Not Think About?



Although some cosmetic microbeads and plastic straws are slowly getting banned in countries, another big polluter of microplastics happens to be paint. Eunomia, waste management claimed that a staggering 130,000 tonnes of plastic derived from the paint from buildings and 80,000 tonnes from road paint has ended up in the oceans. It seems that paint alone is a considerably larger pollutant of microplastics than the entirety of cosmetic waste.


The textiles and fast fashion industry is known for being a massive producer of microfibers and plastics using synthetic fibres in fabrics and dyes. These synthetic fibres include nylon, polyester, and acrylics. However, the production of these fabrics is not the only thing causing plastic waste and environmental damage. Surprisingly, washing up to 40% of these microfibers end up in oceans and our drinking water. Airborne microplastics are also released through the drying process of clothing.


How Can We Do Better?


“The climate crisis is both the easiest and the hardest issue we have ever faced” – Greta Thunberg

Many took documentaries like Blue Planet II and Greta Thunberg’s activism as an awakening and the realisation of the severity of the climate crisis. With the rise of awareness and activists in climate change, is there anything you can do at home?


  • Try buying one eco-friendly non-synthetic clothing piece: Slow fashion brands have seen a rise in recent years, and many are aware of their contribution and environmental impact within the fashion industry! By reducing the consumption and demand for fast fashion, there may be a decline in waste products.


  • Buy reusable water bottles and water filters: It is a cheaper alternative, but it decreases the consumption of single-use plastic bottles that can cause microplastic ingestion, and marine and environmental waste.

While not everything can be 100% sustainable, small changes to your daily routine and lifestyle can make an impact collectively and reduce the impact of microplastics!